Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

The two most popular symphonies of Shostakovich are the 5th, which we looked at here, and the 10th. Both were written after serious denunciations by the regime. The 5th was written to recover his career after his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was criticized in 1936. The second denunciation came in 1948 and one of the works banned as a result was his 8th Symphony. Shostakovich avoided the symphony for some years after. In 1953, not long after the death of Stalin, Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 10, though when he began its composition is not clear.

There are a number of unique things about the 10th Symphony. It is the first occasion of the use of the 'motto' of his name in a composition. Another example of gematria (the use of musical notes as symbols) is the encoding of the name of Elmira Nazirova, a composition student of Shostakovich with whom he fell in love. Here are those two mottos:
This motto depends on using the German names for the notes. E flat is said as "Es" and B natural as "H". This enables Shostakovich to insert his name (D. Sch) into a composition. Here is the Elmira motto:
This takes a bit more explanation. This motto is always heard on French horn written as above. But the horn is a transposing instrument and the notes actually sound as E, A, E, D, A. If you say them in a combination of the French and German ways of saying the notes you get this: E, La, Mi, Re, A or "Elmira".  Both of these mottos are heard in the second half of the third movement.

There are four movements in the symphony which take between 50 and 60 minutes to perform:
  1. Moderato
  2. Allegro
  3. Allegretto
  4. Andante - Allegro
The first movement is a brooding moderato in sonata form that bears a bit of resemblance to Sibelius. Here is the first theme:
Here is the second theme:
The second movement is one of Shostakovich's dynamic scherzos with lots of syncopation. The third movement, often described as a nocturne, features the two mottos of Shostakovich and Elmira. The last movement, after a slow introduction, is a furious dance in which the DSCH motif again appears towards the end.

A lot of the commentary on this symphony, such as the notes by Mark Wigglesworth, focus on the political aspects of the time. While this can be interesting, I hardly think it is the best way to approach the music. Just listening to it, with the score if you have it handy, is better because it allows you to find your own reactions. For example, there is a lot of description of this symphony as being full of despair, but I really don't hear that. I hear a lot of moodiness, certainly, but also a lot of joy and delight. Here, have a listen and see what you think:

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